U.S. media and ideological filtering as a global "public good"

In the study of international relations, there is a conventional and well-demonstrated theory according to which 1.) global stability is to be understood as a “public good,” and 2.) that due to strategic problems obstructing collective cooperation, often a hegemon is required to effectively subsidize it (Krasner 1976; Kindleberger 1981). Put very simply, in the absence of a hegemon, the global system tends toward conflict in a “race to the bottom.” Many states with more or less equal power and acting in their own self-interest calculate that, for instance, raising tariffs will help their domestic industries. However, the outcome is that as every other state acts similarly, all countries fare worse than they would have had they not raised tariffs. A global hegemon can prevent this bad equilibrium by effectively enforcing global free trade. More specifically, it is commonly argued that these conditions characterized the global system immediately after World War II, with the United States subsidizing the construction of an “embedded liberalism” (Ruggie 1983) and using “strategic restraint” (Ikenberry 2001) to favor global free trade rather than traditional militaristic domination.

We can develop and further specifiy this line of thought by elaborating how one of the “public goods” subsidized by liberal American hegemony was perhaps the maintenance of a certain ideological hygiene for the postwar capitalist order. One could argue that U.S. culture industry, nurtured by a media market that exemplifies the liberal, commercial model of state-media relations as well as a liberal bourgeois public opinion, has functioned as a sort of protective filter in global media circulation, a vacuum drain that shoots into the dumpster of forgotten history any ugly flotsam that rises up from the placid sea of global capitalist ideology. 

This filter for the global desiring machine performs the specific and essential function of making any threat to the system replaced by whatever U.S. media puts in its place. The US media, in this model, is a sort of condom for catching the ejaculant of global capitalism, preventing the excesses of capitalist desire from fertilizing offspring that will ultimately contest the father.

More recently, variation across the covers of Time Magazine’s different regional editions provide stunning evidence for this claim. Below are the various regional editions of Time Magazine for the weeks of October 24th and December 5th of this writing (2011).

Whereas the rest of the world sees a proud Egyptian revolutionary in a gas mask, readers in the United States see a story not just about anxiety, but why it’s “good for you.” These images, only suggestive from a social scientific perspective, provide almost too-provocative evidence of the hypothesis advanced in the last section, that differences in U.S. news reportage perform a certain function of ideological filtering for global flows of desire. 

 Although we remain for the moment agnostic with respect to the specific characteristics of the U.S. media that lead it to function as global ideological filter, the hypothesis along with the patently conservative biases exemplified in these magazine covers would be consistent with the dyanmic patterns of variation uncovered previously using data from Google Books. Material political or economic shocks to the system (radical rebellions such as that of May 1968 in France or the Egyptian uprising this past year) enters into regional or global news but is prevented from causing truly global disruptions of consciousness by a domestic U.S. media quickly replacing it with the sterile human interest stories for which it is famous. Because the U.S. is one of the chief exporters of culture in the world, this sterilization of news consumption for even just the U.S. domestic market represents an energy sink for the whole global system. If revolutionary energy doesn’t get in, it obviously doesn’t get sent back out, and this is especially significant because so much of global culture is set by the American culture industries.

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Murphy, Justin. 2011. "U.S. media and ideological filtering as a global "public good"," http://jmrphy.net/blog/2011/12/20/14486977984/ (April 17, 2017).